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U.S.: Military Intervention Trumping Humanitarian Aid

Aprille Muscara

WASHINGTON, Feb 10 2011 (IPS) - In the midst of a belt-tightening political climate in which pledges by prominent lawmakers to slash the United States’ foreign affairs budget will likely soon be realised, some rights groups and experts are concerned about the increasingly blurry distinction between security and development in the face of shrinking resources.

“The upshot of the budget situation is that we will continue to rely on the military for development efforts,” Connie Veillete, foreign assistance expert at the Centre for Global Development, warned an audience at a panel discussion here Thursday. “If the international affairs budget goes down, we will have to rely on DOD (the U.S. Department of Defence) more and more.”

Meanwhile, a new Oxfam report released Thursday titled “Whose aid is it anyway?: Politicising aid in conflicts and crises” caution against the growing trend of militarising international aid.

“Effective aid saves lives, reduces poverty, builds health and education systems and strengthens the economies of poorer countries,” said Mike Lewis, author of the report, in a statement. “Aid directed to short-term political and military objectives fails to reach the poorest people and also fails to build long-term security in fragile states and ultimately for donors, too.”

On Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama will submit his budget proposal to Congress for fiscal year (FY) 2012. With an estimated 1.4-trillion-dollar deficit for FY 2011 and a national debt of over 14 trillion dollars, officials are scrambling to curb spending.

In a bid to convince policymakers of the importance of foreign aid, administration officials have recently ramped up their rhetoric of framing development as integral to national interests in an effort to justify further funding.

“[D]evelopment is not and cannot be a sideshow,” said U.S.A.I.D. administrator Rajiv Shah in a speech at the Centre for Global Development last month. “As the President and the Secretaries of State, Treasury and Defence have all made abundantly clear, development is as critical to our economic prospects and our national security as diplomacy and defence.”

“There’s a real framing issue here,” said Gordon Adams, foreign affairs and defence budgets expert at the Stimson Centre, at the panel discussion, which was organised by the Society for International Development. Defining aid as a security versus a governance or development matter is an important distinction because each leads to two different directions in terms of leadership as well as organisation, he argued.

The Spectre of Radical Takeovers

Instead of justifying development with humanitarian reasons – in order to help alleviate the poverty and hunger of our fellow humans, for instance – observers say that the last two administrations have tended to justify development as key to national security – as a tool to prevent radical groups from gaining influence and potentially threaten the U.S., for example.

Along with this post-9/11 rhetoric came a shift whereby civilian programmes tasked with development efforts have been gradually defunded, while more of their responsibilities have become delegated to the military, observers say.

Things like “stabilisation” and “reconstruction” – once largely within the stable of these civilian programmes – thus became increasingly intertwined with the U.S. tactic of counterinsurgency in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

As a result of this shift, the Department of Defence must now be able to do everything from overthrowing governments to changing diapers in New Orleans, said Doug Brooks, an expert on the role of the private sector in international stabilisation operations, at the discussion. But the latter is better left to humanitarian and development workers, he argued.

“We need to take a more realistic approach in what we are asking DOD to do,” he said. “Things like poverty reduction should be left to the civilian side… We need to re- civilianise things, not push everything to DOD.”

“Over the years, we’ve just allowed too many [military] actors… into the development field,” Veillete echoed, adding that this trend has often led to incoherence in policy and even agencies working at cross-purposes. The Oxfam report argues much the same.

“While effective aid has helped save lives, protect rights and build livelihoods, some donors’ military and security interests have skewed global aid spending; and amidst conflict, disasters and political instability have too often led to uncoordinated, unsustainable, expensive and even dangerous aid projects,” the report stated.

“U.S. aid funds allocated to front-line military commanders to win ‘hearts and minds’ in Iraq and Afghanistan are now almost as large as the worldwide Development Assistance budget of the U.S. government’s aid agency, U.S.A.I.D.,” it also noted.

Fuelling the Military Budget

Although foreign affairs spending is in the crosshairs of many Republican lawmakers, it only constitutes about one percent of the total budget, the panellists said.

For FY 2011, the budget requested for the Department of State and “Other International Programmes” was 56.8 billion dollars, while a whopping 708 billion dollars for military spending was proposed, according to the Office of Management and Budget.

But analysts say that in this penny-pinching climate, even the long-protected defence budget is threatened. “Everything should be on the table, and I mean everything – including defence,” Adams argued.

Brooks noted that so far, the defence cuts that have been promised are merely cuts in rises. Defence Secretary Gates announced last month that the Pentagon would be spending 78 billion dollars – a figure greater than the total foreign affairs budget – less, over five years, than it had previously proposed. Even with these savings, military spending is projected to grow by three percent next year.

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